At a research-intensive university like McGill University, profs talking to profs about teaching is not a given. Profs are busy and many are accustomed to working in isolation. Even teaching is experienced by many profs as an isolating endeavour.
Dr. Anita Parmar, Associate Director at B21 and Senior Advisor, Innovative Collaboration, is seeking to change this. Anita has a role within the Faculty of Science to look for gaps in programming and then address these gaps with programming that inspires positive changes to teaching and learning in the Faculty. One of Anita’s most recent projects is to transform the teaching-in-isolation environment into a community environment where profs can discover they are among like-minded colleagues—like-minded in terms of having a common interest in expanding their repertoire of teaching strategies and in sharing ideas about teaching. Sounds like a great idea, but building community among faculty members can be a challenging undertaking. Anita had a vision, though. She wanted profs talking to profs about hard questions related to teaching science, like, how can you support student learning in really large classes? How do you teach classes where students have radically different levels of background knowledge? How can you illustrate—not just give theoretical explanations about—challenging concepts?
Anita, in collaboration with Ingrid Berker, who works at the Redpath Museum and is associated with the science outreach and public program, and 4th year Cultural Studies student Ellie Martin, came up with the idea for a speaker series entitled Breakfast Reboot: Sharing Stories of Academic Innovation in Science Education. The goal of the series is to provide a forum for sharing stories and discussing issues with the hope of inspiring new ideas. These informal breakfast talks feature members of the McGill academic community, as well as colleagues from other universities.
Dr. Laura Pavelka (Department of Chemistry) kicked off the series with a talk entitled: Tools for “shrinking” the large classroom. Prof. Ken Ragan (Department of Physics) was the second guest speaker, and he offered Strategies to improve engagement and feedback in large classes.
I attended both events. Judging by attendance and the animated Q&A sessions that continued past the scheduled time, a thirst clearly exists for the exchange of practical teaching ideas among colleagues. Comments that Anita received by email from attendees afterward attest to the success of the series to date, and suggest that community building may well be happening in the Faculty: “Great initiative!” and “I like best about the talk that it had a lot of audience feedback and discussion.” And community extended to other important members of the Faculty: “As a faculty advisor, I appreciate that I can contribute my comments, opinions at these talks. The talk was very informative.”
I asked Anita what her most important take-away was from the two events. She said she feels full of hope. She explained: “Trying to affect behavioural change on a broad scale in higher education can feel like you’re pushing against a mountain. Teaching large classes of hundreds of students is a complex challenge. After listening to the two presenters and the exchanges among colleagues, I believe it’s possible for teaching throughout the faculty to improve as a result of profs sharing teaching ideas with each other. There’s really something to be said for peers hearing from peers despite diversity among disciplines within the sciences. I was inspired by hearing honest and straightforward views from the profs and the techniques they’re using to overcome challenges.”
Laura Pavelka’s comments capture everything Anita had hoped the Breakfast Reboot series would achieve: “It is all too rare that we are able to get together and discuss teaching initiatives and ideas. We all know that the best ideas come from discussion and collaboration. So, I’m excited to participate as an audience member in the future.”
Breakfast Reboot is back on November 7, 2018 with Cognitive Science Honours student Pierre Theo Klein talking about Tutoring in the Age of Technology. Read more. Email Anita if you would like to be notified of upcoming events and if you have suggestions for guest speakers.